Overseen by Luc Kabile’s acrylic portrait of Frantz Fanon’s iconic gaze of intensity into an unseen expanse, I had the opportunity to learn from another student and colleague of Aimé Césaire present that night. With the collective knowledge of 88 years of life and writing a complete history of Martinique, author and historian Armand Nicolas had a lot to say and answered in every question in depth and in detail.
Martinicans have an ongoing disdain for Joséphine, the wife of Napoleon Bonaparte who was born and raised in Martinique, believing she is the reason slavery was reinstated in the French colonies. A man in the audience (with pages of research and quotes) talked about Nicolas’s contradictory assertions on the subject and asked him to clarify once and for all whether Joséphine was proslavery or not.
He began explaining that in 1802 when Napoleon sent 25,000 military men to Haiti and 5,000 to Guadeloupe, he only sent about 850 to Martinique to reinstate slavery. The reason for this was that when slavery was abolished by France in 1794 (slavery had no place in a state whose motto was Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity), Martinique had come under British occupation and was therefore not abolished.
Cue groans and rumblings from the audience. Admittedly, Nicolas’ responses were long-winded, but he’s a historian, 88 years-old and he got to his points eventually, so cut the man some slack. The man who asked the question in the first place yelled out that Nicolas wasn’t answering his question: Was Joséphine proslavery and did she tell Napoleon to restore slavery?
Nicolas responded thus:
“What kind of man do you think Napoleon was?”
True, I thought.
Napoleon took advantage of the calm and the desire for economic development to bring slavery back to the colonies. Yes, Joséphine was proslavery but it was highly unlikely he would be influenced by his wife, a woman in the 18th and 19th centuries. In my opinion, this view of Joséphine detracts from Napoleon’s responsibility as the head of state and ultimate decision maker and is simply a demonization of women which I will one day deconstruct as an effect of the machismo present on this island (and many others in the Caribbean) in a master’s thesis… Bref.
Despite the large army sent to Haiti, slavery was never reinstated there—see Haitian Revolution for details. In Guadeloupe, the battle was fought but lost. In Martinique, there was some battle, but for the most part it was merely a changeover of administration led by Admiral Joyeuse and Prefet Bertin.
At this point, we can now understand Nicolas’s two controversial proclamations: that Martinique cease to have a national celebration on July 14th (Bastille Day) and that Place Bertin in Saint-Pierre and Place Joyeuse in Trinité (squares in the town centres where events are often held outdoors) be renamed, if not destroyed. For the first point, July 14th has no meaning to Martinicans as a symbol for freedom—being under British occupation meant they remained slaves, therefore Martinique’s national celebration should be on May 22nd, the date of the final abolition of slavery in 1841. Place Bertin and Place Joyeuse, Nicolas argues are named after Prefect Bertin and Admiral Louis Thomas Villaret de Joyeuse, respectively—those in charge of the colony of Martinique during the re-establishment of slavery in 1802. This means that these two places are in fact named after oppressors of Martinican people and therefore an affront to the struggles of the people.
Nicolas lambasted the mayor of Trinité for his inaction on the matter. The mayor, who was in attendance, responded that there is no written proof that Place Joyeuse is not just a place that is “joyeuse” or happy, and until that can be shown most people think of the place as such. Another man in the audience said that when he was younger, posters advertising events would list the location as “Place Villaret Joyeuse.”… Bref.
I left as the discussion became less constructive and more confrontational. People seemed intent on discrediting Nicolas, which is a shame as he has worked not just to “talk for the sake of talking but to produce action.” Few people seemed interested in thinking about what his purpose really was—talking about the maturation of the mind and questioning life in Martinique as it is today and what it can be tomorrow.
For me, it was interesting to hear someone who is nearly an artefact of Martinican history speak. I don’t just mean that in terms of his age. Nicolas lived through the Depression, World War II and an tan Robè, was educated by and wrote for Césaire, experienced firsthand or participated in the political and literary movements of Négritude with Césaire and Senghor, Créolization of Chamoiseau and Glissant, the effects of Fanon, the climate during departmentalization and the most recent General Strike in 2009. Even if you dislike his politics or historicity, all of his lived history is still a springboard to enhanced social consciousness.